As cases of COVID-19 spike in Black Hawk County, Iowa, the local sheriff is blasting Tyson Foods, and local officials are calling for the company to shut down its plant in Waterloo, raising concerns for the community's safety and the continuity of the nation’s meat supply.
Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said he’s concerned that COVID-19 will overrun his community if the Tyson Foods plant doesn’t take proper precautions, including temporarily shutting it down.
“My personal opinion is that it should be closed,” Thompson said. “I think we need a hard boot, reset on that plant. I think we need to be able to sort out and cull the herd between the haves and the have-nots there. I think we need to deep-clean that facility and I think we need to restart that plant on a clean slate.”
Thompson’s statement came shortly before the state released figures Friday that showed 138 people had tested positive for the virus and one person has died with the virus in Black Hawk County. Amid more testing, the number of positive cases has nearly doubled in the county this week, according to state figures.
Local officials, who said Thursday they had 150 positive tests in Black Hawk County, have suggested the spike in cases is related to workers at the plant testing positive.
Gov. Kim Reynolds acknowledged a potential outbreak at the Waterloo meatpacking plant earlier this week and has sent increased testing materials to both Waterloo and Columbus Junction, where a Tyson plant closed as the virus spread among its workers.
"The Department of Public Health is working closely with some of our processing plants — the Tyson plants, especially in Columbus Junction and Waterloo — in an effort to test all employees and conduct contact tracing for all positive cases," the governor said Friday. "Testing will conclude today at the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction; 2,700 tests are being sent today to the Tyson plant in Waterloo."
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The Columbus Junction plant has been closed since April 6. The Waterloo plant remains open.
Reynolds said she had a conversation with human resources managers in Waterloo on Thursday.
"I kind of ran through some of the things where, you know, they want to do everything they can to keep their workforce healthy," she said, adding that staff there is "continually looking for additional things that they can do to make sure that they have a safe environment for their employees."
Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said Friday that she didn’t believe the state needed to issue a closure order for the plant.
“We do believe that the CEOs of these companies, they want to do the right thing,” Reisetter said. “They want to keep their employees healthy, and part of that is making sure we can identify individuals who are sick so they can be at home and recover and not spread the virus at the workplace.”
Thompson, who visited the Waterloo plant last week and has spoken to members in the community, said he thought Tyson put production ahead of employee safety.
“We walked into that plant and some people are wearing homemade masks, some people are wearing bandannas, and some people aren’t wearing anything,” Thompson said. “They’re working elbow-to-elbow. Some are reaching over the top of others on the food production lines. They deep clean once a night. They felt like they were doing a good job, and we walked out of there thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, if this is the bare minimum, this isn’t enough.’ ”
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“I think Tyson is focused on production, period,” Thompson said. “I don’t think Tyson gives two (expletive) about who is filling one particular spot on the production floor that day. I think they are purely concerned about productivity at that plant.”
Thompson wasn't the only local official Friday asking the plant to close.
During a news conference, Waterloo mayor Quentin Hart said he wrote an email to Reynolds and state public health officials asking that they close the plant.
Chris Schwartz, chair of the Black Hawk County Board of Supervisors, read the letter aloud. It was signed by 19 elected officials, all urging Tyson to temporarily close the plant.
"We understand these are extraordinary times, but steps must be taken to ensure the safety and well-being of Tyson's valuable employees and our community," Schwartz read. "There's now an outbreak of positive cases of COVID-19 at Tyson's Waterloo operation."
Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, also asked Reynolds to intervene.
"We've got a serious problem, and I think it's time for the governor to step up to the plate, be honest with Iowa, and the management of Tyson (to) take this very seriously and follow the recommendations from all the leadership in Black Hawk County," Dotzler said.
Tyson officials have said worker safety is their focus.
"Protecting our team members continues to be top priority for us," Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston said in a statement this week.